“Ayam Penyet”, literally translated as smashed or flattened chicken, was until six or seven years ago a pretty unknown dish. It is now a lunch or dinnertime staple as popular as “nasi katok”.
There is nothing unusual about this Indonesian dish. Its components are straightforward: fried chicken, ‘ulam-ulaman’ (vegetables, usually raw cucumber and blanched cabbage), plain rice and ‘sambal’. Some would want to jazz it up with tempe, a sprinkling of ‘uras’ (golden crumbs left at the bottom of the deep fry strainer) from the batter or crackers. It is a simple dish, but as everyone knows, the greatest meals are not necessarily multi-coursed, multi-sauced feasts but simple homely dishes prepared with love and care.
You used to only find Ayam Penyet in insalubrious locales without a Rampaian Licence but its popularity as a cheap and cheerful dish has grown. Now everyone has a favourite Ayam Penyet place and I thought I would try to sample a few.
I started my research of Brunei-Muara District’s favourite penyet places as I do when needing an answer to a burning question these days: ask Twitter and Facebook. I enlisted my beloved and we set out to review the most popular choices, those with three votes or more. We paid for our own meals and I list them in order of consumption.
The first place we went to was the newly opened Ayam Penyet AP, located at Units 20 & 21, Ground Floor Block B, Gadong Central. It is a franchise joint – a sign of how far this dish has gone; like burgers, pizza or fried chicken (wait a minute, it IS fried chicken). It is a Malaysian enterprise that has been given the “license” from the Indonesian Government to use the name “Ayam Penyet”. So in other words, Indonesia owns this part of culture but the Malaysians reap the benefit.
Anyway, this place is run with modern tick-the-box stick-with-the-manual industrial efficiency. It had laminated menus with glossy pictures, snazzy drinks with at least three ingredients and stylish furniture. The menu had a wide variety of new fangled penyets aside from the normal chicken: beef and duck and ironically, Skate, a flat fish.
It was busy at 9pm on a weekday night and generally delivered a clean, efficient dining experience, far removed from the sidewalk gerai origins of this dish. Ayam Penyet cost $5.10 and drinks, mocktails especially, were pricey.
Vegetable: 2/5 Not a big helping. Lacked zing.
Sambal: 3.5/5 Strong but to the point of overpowering the tongue.
Rice: 2.5/5 You had to pay extra for rice.
Chicken: 3/5 Nice enough, but not moist on the inside.
Service/Ambience: 3.5/5 Zippy.
Total: 14.5 from 25
Subjective Rating: If this place was a diplomatic incident, it would have been won by the Malaysians.
The next day for lunch we headed to Pondok Sari Wangi, 1st Floor , Unit 12 and 13 Block A, Abdul Razak Complex Gadong, a popular Indonesian restaurant that has been around for some 22 years. We went to the Gadong branch. The Ayam Penyet and its accouterments came in a designed round white plate lined with banana leaf. It is accompanied with tempe and a few crackers thrown in for good measure. This is a more full-blown restaurant than the first, with a full menu of Indonesian delicacies, and service to match. Ayam Penyet was $5.00, lime juice was $3.00.
Vegetable: 4.5/5 Fresh. Crispy blanched cabbage and flavourful cucumbers.
Sambal: 4/5 Light in colour, but the heat was clear, as was the taste of fresh tomato.
Rice: 4/5 Moist.
Chicken: 4/5 Fresh, still succulent inside.
Service and Atmosphere: 3/5 MTV at lunch.
Total: 19.5 from 25
Subjective Rating: If this Ayam Penyet was an item of clothing, it would be a classic Chanel handbag, reassuringly expensive.
In the evening we went to Taman Selera, opposite the Sharia Courts building in Bandar. Stall Number 4, Gerai Selera Damas has dining alfresco, indeed there is no inside eating. This gerai is within a large food court, which is quite lively in the evenings, with large families feasting and a few tourists tentatively picking at the live seafood offerings. Damas seems to cater to those in the know; indeed an old school friend was seated at the next table. After a while, he simply went into the kitchen, cut his own vegetables and fried his own fish. I asked him if he had any ownership interests, he said that he was only a regular. 3 orders of ayam penyet came family style, $3.00 each and $1.00 for a drink. The economy option.
Vegetable: 2.5/5 Cucumber and cabbage.
Sambal: 4/5 2 types hot and medium. The medium was balanced and had a deep tomato flavor.
Rice: 2/5 No portion control.
Service and Atmosphere: 3/5 Street cuisine.
Total: 14.5 from 25
Subjective Rating: If this gerai was a night out in any other city it would be a Dangdut Club playing Inul Daratista karaoke.
We tried Arzy Restaurant’s Ayam Penyet next. Formerly located on the 2nd floor PGGMB Building and now at the food court of Wisma Setia on Jalan Pemancha. I have to thank Arzy for getting me hooked on Ayam Penyet. The service was familiar and cheery. You dine in a food court filled with a mix of office and manual workers. Ayam Penyet was $4.00, Coke $1.00. Recommended for lunch only.
Vegetable: 4/5 Cucumber, cabbage beans and kenikir ferns.
Sambal: 3/5 Less tomato, more belacan. More rock than keroncong.
Chicken: 3.5/5 Properly smashed, skin flavourful.
Service and Atmosphere: 3/5 I like being greeted like a long lost friend, but minus points for cleanliness.
Total: 16.5 from 25
Subjective Rating: For me this place would be like a favourite piece of clothing, a comfortable and familiar pair of jeans that have seen better days.
Gerai Makan Ayam Penyet Tanjung Nangka is on Simpang 1626 just beyond the Jerudong turn off on Jalan Tutong. This received the most votes. We first went when it was a wooden shack over a monsoon drain. Now it has proper parking and its own concrete building. The proprietress, an elderly lady from the kampung, still lords it over the cash till regardless whether it was in a wooden shack or in the new comfortable surroundings. Her golden bangles like Wonder Woman’s cuffs of power. Ayam Penyet was $3.50, lime juice was $1.00.
Vegetable: 3/5 Muang beans!
Sambal: 4/5 Mild, balanced.
Rice: 4/5 Local short grain.
Chicken: 4/5 Flavourful local bird.
Service and Atmosphere: 3/5 Functional.
Total: 18 from 25
Subjective Rating: If this Gerai was a football team, it would be the Brunei Under 21 National team, the local contender.
Our final Ayam Penyet epic was completed at Gerai Mak Siti, on Simpang 178-16, Kampong Kiarong. It can be seen from the highway, on the left as you pass RIPAS before Jame’. The Gerai is in someone’s garden, with twinkling fairy lights and an absence of fluorescence. Seating is in a cosy wooden structure. It is, if anything, a gerai for dating. Ayam Penyet was $3.00, Coke was $1.00, economical.
Sambal: 3/5 Two types again, the hot was hot, and the mild was sweet.
Chicken: 3/5 Smells good.
Service and Atmosphere: 4.5/5
Total: 17.5 from 25
Subjective Rating: If this restaurant was a P. Ramlee song, it would be “Getaran Jiwa”.
Illustration by Cuboi Art.
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